Wharton professor discusses the economics of racism

Bernard E. Anderson, the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, discusses how racism hurts the economy and affects all Americans.

People on a commuter vehicle with face-coverings on

The viral pandemic and last summer’s racial justice protests have thrown a national spotlight on longstanding racial and gender disparities within the U.S. economy, with unemployment rates chronically higher for African Americans and Hispanics, and levels of wealth, income, and homeownership sharply lower.

The wage gap between white and Black Americans has widened in the past 20 years to roughly $33,000 per household, according to the Economic Policy Institute and Pew Research Center, which also predicts that the wealth gap will drain at least a trillion dollars out of the U.S. economy annually over the next decade. That translates into a loss of $2,800 or more for every American.

A Citigroup study found that white households’ net worth grew 43%, to $61,200, between 1995 and 2016, while it remained flat at $35,400 for Black families. The study also found that 44% of Black households owned their homes in 2019, compared with 74% of white households.

The Citigroup study also shows that incarceration rates among Black Americans, voter suppression efforts, and conscious bias in hiring all play a role in hindering the U.S. from making strides in closing the gap.

Bernard E. Anderson, the Whitney M. Young Jr Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School and former assistant secretary for the Employment Standards Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor, talked to Penn Today about the economic costs of racism and how it affects all Americans.

What is the cost of racism?

Racial disparity in American economic life is reflected in the deep, broad, persistent inequality in employment, income, and wealth, which significantly diminishes the quality of life for African Americans.

It has been so since Black people were first brought to this country as slaves. After emancipation, they were denied capital and land ownership, and subjected to violence after the brief period of reconstruction as the Southern states adjusted to a new social order with 4 million free men and women of color. Jim Crow emerged, with de jure racial segregation in the South, and racial discrimination in other sections of the country. These conditions created major racial disparities in income, employment, and wealth that became embedded in the social and cultural exchange between Black people and other groups in the American population.

The general impact is that it diminishes the quality of life, and it creates major social and psychological damage to Black families.

It creates a number of outcomes that are undesirable. The life expectancy of Black people is shorter than it is for white people, and that has significant impacts on health care. There are wide ranges of impacts as a result of racial inequality in America.

What does this actually mean for Americans’ wallets?

Racial economic disparities reduce economic growth, measured by gross domestic product, (GDP)— the money value of all goods and services produced in the U.S. GDP is determined by consumer spending (two-thirds), business investment, government spending, and net exports.  The racial income disparity reduces Black family consumer spending, and also reduces savings, which is the source of investment. Investment is the foundation for building wealth. Thus, the inability for Black people to participate fully in the economy reduces total national income. A recent estimate by economists put the value of the foregone income at an average of $4 trillion.

How do you think American life would look and feel differently if our politics were not so divided by race, if people were all voting as a different kind of economic block?

I think we would have more progressive policies, and American life would not be hampered by the scourge of white supremacy. White supremacy is so deeply embedded in the fabric of American life that it influences unconscious behavior. If race is taken out of the mix, economic interests reflected in the distribution of income would dominate voting behavior and public policy.

How can we prosper together?

As the economy grows, the rising tide will lift all boats, if there is general equal opportunity. All groups will prosper based on their energy, hard work, and aspirations for building a better life for their family. Those who work hard and play by the rules will prosper. They will not be held back because of their race.

What must be done to allow us to prosper together is eliminate the discrimination and create an environment of genuine equal opportunity. That means every person in the labor market should have an equal opportunity to be employed in an occupation for which they qualify based on their education, training, and previous work experience without regard to their race. Moreover, each employee should be paid wages based on their occupation, should be promoted based on their on the job training and performance, and given equal benefits based on their length of service—all determined without regards to race. Obviously, equal opportunity to get a quality education must precede entry into the labor market. Observance of those conditions would align the practice of America with the promise of America.